Are you Confusing Busy-ness with Productivity?

It’s a new year and a new decade and if you are like me, you are reflecting, tweaking, and experimenting with your productivity habits.  From the outside, it seems like I get a lot done (and I do) but these visible accomplishments mostly get completed from having external deadlines, people that rely on me, and a business consultant with who I have accountability.  When it comes to things like, say, writing a blog, developing a curriculum for new training or webinars I find it difficult to focus on such open-ended tasks that don’t have externally imposed deadlines.  

My mini-experiments so far are teaching me a lot about what works best for me and what doesn’t.  And as I learn even more about the science behind habits and changing behavior I’ve been able to also help my clients create mini-habits to support them in their bigger goals. 

Mini habits

One example that’s been working really well for me is my mini habit of meditation. I’ve been meditating for years and have found a lot of benefits in doing 20 minutes per day. However, my consistency has not been stellar.  So instead of what I used to do when I reset my habit of meditation which was to pick x amount of days per week to meditate for 20 minutes, I set a mini habit of meditating 5-20 min daily. This has been a huge shift in that no matter how crazy my schedule gets I can at least do 5 min of meditation.  And anything beyond that 5 min is a bonus. So far it’s been 10 days straight, not a world record, but I feel good about my success.  


A recent concept I’ve learned about is called “tunneling.”  When we are feeling stressed and overwhelmed with all that we have to do in a short amount of time, we can “tunnel” which means that we narrow our cognitive bandwidth as we focus on the things that are right in front of us versus the big picture strategy that could actually prevent us from tunneling in the first place.  For me, it can look like responding to every email that comes in as it comes in, or checking little things off of my to-do list and not getting to the things that are creative and take more thinking time. My internal narrative is something like “I don’t have time to get everything done!” and the feeling is somewhat panicky.  When I’m in this tunnel, I feel rewarded as I tick off little things and yet go to bed feeling like I didn’t accomplish anything important that’s connected to the big picture strategy for my business. You can read the article about tunneling here:

Behavioral science is showing us that humans are addicted to novelty.  The email ends up feeding that addiction. Whether it’s the ding of a new email or the ping of a Facebook message, we stop everything to check it out.  When we are tunneling this provides a sense of being busy with what’s right in front of us which again is the narrowing of our cognitive bandwidth in this mode of time scarcity.  

Strategies to increase productivity

Below are some strategies when you are caught in the busy-ness trap and not getting the important nonurgent work done (yes, this is a nod to Steven Covey’s quadrant on time management) : 


1. Manage when you attend to and respond to emails and other messages. 

Consider a schedule for when you check email. I have a client who was very successful with this strategy and he reported that his productivity increased by checking his email 3x/day only.  And when he did check his email he was focused on only that versus attending to other stimuli and distractions. He was surprised that he did not get pushback from clients, team members, and other email senders and found that if something was truly urgent, he would be contacted.


2. Discuss with your team and company what culture you want to create around email and message response times

This is helpful regarding email requests in that the norms would include the response time expected when an email is received. In addition, if your team uses a shared calendar system where open slots mean meetings can be added to your schedule without your control, consider creating boundaries.  I coach an executive director who was struggling to find time to do his work separate from meetings. Eventually, he blocked out chunks of time on the shared calendar and requested that his team honor his need to not be booked for the entire day.  


3. Create a mini-habit of daily prioritization for the non-urgent, important thing to be completed. 

For example, “after I have my morning coffee, I will come up with the most important task to complete for the day.”  While we are on mini-habits, it’s very important that you track your mini-habits either through an app, paper calendar, whiteboard, etc.  The min-habit needs to be silly small so you can’t help but succeed. And success is what builds momentum and creates more success.  


4. Honor your own unique path of habit change

Gretchen Rubin in her book, “Better than before” discusses how important it is to “know thyself” when it comes to habit formation.  She has a quiz you can take on the Four Tendencies personality types:

I’m jealous of the Upholder type who has the internal discipline to get things done without external expectations or accountability.  I’m more of an Obliger who needs accountability to maximize productivity. Knowing your best way of working, regardless of what your colleagues are doing, what health habits serve you the most, etc. is key to being productive.


5. Create an environment for success that works for you. 

This is a corollary to #4. I know that when my work surroundings are cluttered and chaotic I struggle to be productive.  The crazy thing is that I know this and still sometimes don’t tackle the organizing and tidying up that will benefit me mentally and emotionally.  It can feel counterintuitive to not get your important things done while you are stopping to organize but this is what needs to be done if you are not moving forward and feeling overwhelmed. 

Others can be very creative in a chaotic workspace and even find comfort in having a lot of stuff around them. Consider whether you work better with music or silence; surrounded by others working or being alone; knowing your optimal break activity such as walks, stretching, drinking water, etc. The key is to observe what’s working for you and what isn’t and create the working environment that leads to your best productivity.


What works for you to be your most productive self?  What is not working for you that could benefit from a new mini-habit experiment? 


Originally published at on January 4, 2020.

*Image by Ibrahim Bernal from Pixabay 

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